COLUMBIA — Two projects to widen and improve segments of Interstate 85 in the Upstate are one step closer to construction after approval by the state Transportation Infrastructure Bank.
The bank’s board unanimously approved four major interstate improvement projects on Tuesday and funding to pay for preliminary engineering on others, a $550 million funding package of cash and bonds. All that remains is approval by the Joint Bond Review Committee, which is expected.
The money will pay $80 million for improving the I-85/I-385 interchange in Greenville; $262 million to widen a 16-mile stretch of I-85 in Spartanburg and Cherokee counties; $154 million to widen a 10-mile stretch of I-20 in Lexington County; and $38 million to widen a 2.6-mile segment of I-77 near Columbia.
Also approved was up to $10 million for preliminary engineering for the area where I-20 joins I-26 near Columbia and known by motorists as “Malfunction Junction”; $4 million for preliminary engineering for the last segment of widening I-85 to the North Carolina border; and up to $6 million for engineering of other interstate projects to be submitted by Department of Transportation officials and approved by the bank board.
Tuesday’s vote wouldn’t halt other top interstate projects, such as I-526 in Charleston, which are being funded with other monies, officials said.
If approved by the Joint Bond Review panel, work could begin on the I-85/I-385 interchange next summer, said Ron Patton, chief engineer for planning and design for the state Department of Transportation.
“We spread this money over the state, and the Upstate got their share this time,” Department of Transportation Chairman Johnny Edwards of Travelers Rest told The Greenville News.
“Now you can actually say we’re going to be working on I-85 from Greenville to the North Carolina line. I think that’s good for the Upstate, and I think that’s good for the whole state.”
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, who also serves on the Infrastructure Bank and chairs the Bond Review Committee, told The News much is left to be done and he wants the Legislature to address the entire need, not just a piece of it as it did this year.
A Department of Transportation task force estimated last year that the state needs to spend about $29 billion over 20 years to raise the state’s roads and bridges to an acceptable condition.
Leatherman said officials with Boeing told Washington state that they wanted that state’s Legislature to approve $8 billion to $9 billion in road work there.
“That’s coming to our state sooner or later,” he said. “When I’m talking to companies about moving here, they say, ‘Senator, do you have a road system good enough to move our people and goods? If you don’t, we ain’t coming.’”
Leatherman said what the Legislature did this year was a “good Band-Aid.”
“We’ve got to address the whole problem, and I don’t understand why we can’t do that,” he said.
Don Leonard of Myrtle Beach, chairman of the Infrastructure Bank, said the idea of getting engineering done on a handful of additional interstate projects is to get them “shovel ready” so that they can be prepared for construction if other sources of funding are discovered.
He said U.S. Reps. Mark Sanford of Charleston and Tom Rice of Myrtle Beach asked him to get some projects ready for the next round of transportation funding.
“They both have encouraged me to somehow get some South Carolina interstate projects shovel ready,” he said.
Leonard said by getting the engineering complete, the projects will be pushed by an average of two years closer to construction.
“We can then start developing a master plan to modernize South Carolina’s interstate system,” he said. “I think this is something the Legislature would be interested in.”
The board on Tuesday had the choice of three plans. One, the initial submission by the Department of Transportation, would pay for the four interstate projects approved Tuesday.
The second would have delayed the I-77 project and used the money instead for preliminary engineering on several projects. The plan approved by the board used $20 million from the I-385/85 interchange project to pay for the preliminary engineering.
Leonard also said the $20 million of bank funding that would be taken from the I-385/I-85 project would have no impact on that project. The interchange project is closest to construction among the four projects considered Tuesday, officials said.
Tuesday’s approval came after weeks of discussion and debate by board members that sparked worries by some lawmakers and Department of Transportation board members that politics might thwart the DOT board’s submitted plan from the summer.
“Now we’ve got to concentrate on working on the other end of I-85 and I-26 to Charleston,” Edwards said.
“We’ve got a long way to go. I think this helps a good bit, but we’ve still got a long way to go.”